Reading Connects Communities in the U.S. and Macedonia

December 14, 2012

When Jennifer Birdsall applied to the Fulbright U.S. Student Program in Macedonia, her goal was to become a better teacher. 

“I am an elementary school teacher … and always wanted to have international teaching experience,” says Jennifer.  “I was really drawn to the people and culture [of Macedonia].”

As a Fulbrighter Jennifer lived in Macedonia from September 2011 to July 2012-- helping to teach English and American culture in a number of classes at South East European University in Tetovo, as well as developing two of her own courses. In her spare time, Jennifer started an English club, in partnership with Read Across America, at the American Corner in Tetovo for young Macedonians.

Despite the success of the English club, Jennifer noticed a significant disparity between the library in the American corner and Macedonian corner.

 “The American Corner has a wonderful library,” says Jennifer. “But being an elementary school teacher, I noticed a lack of children’s books. Kids would come to me and say, ‘Do you have a good English book to read?’ And the ones I would recommend were not there.”

From there, a partnership formed and grew rapidly between Lincoln and Tetovo. “The kids in Holmes decided to start collecting the books and showed all the kids at the club the books they collected, explains Jennifer.” Other schools started to donate books, and community members started to donate money to get them shipped.”

As word got out about the project, interest exploded.

“Mansfried Shipping Company heard the kids wanted to donate these books,” says Jennifer. “They wanted to match the donations and take care of all the logistics of shipping.

Runza Fast Food in Nebraska also donated, and when a local Lincoln couple passed away, they donated all of their money to the project.

 When the U.S. Embassy heard about the project, they held an event with U.S. Ambassador Paul Wohlers. Once the books arrived, the Ambassador and Jennifer were able to give about 100 books to every school and community in the Tetovo region. The American Corners got about 250 each. “Seeing [the kids] look at the boxes and touch the boxes. ‘They’re in these boxes?’ I will never ever forget that,” says Jennifer. “I got to see all the faces of the kids when they got the books.”

In total, about 14,500 books were shipped from Lincoln, Nebraska to Tetovo, Macedonia.

“I can only take a little credit for this,” Jennifer said. “I think this is a perfect example of the American sense of community. When you hear that your friends or neighbors are trying to do something, you can help too. It’s just the American heart of giving, of wanting to help other people. I think that’s how this happened.”

Jennifer offered a few words of advice to other Fulbrighters.

“Look for opportunities that don’t come to you easily. Don’t just take the easy route… find a way that you can best help them. Seek out things that aren’t common and listen to people.”